Saturday, February 19, 2011

Calories Without Context

*If you find it uncomfortable to read calorie counts, you might want to skip this; I don't think I can illustrate my point without numbers

So, I live in NYC, where chain restaurants are required to post their calorie counts next to every item on the menu. I count myself lucky that for me, it's just kind of a grating little annoyance, and not a full-blown trigger like I've read happens to many people in recovery from eating disorders. When it first came out, it did make me second-guess myself, and there were a good few days when I was picking the lowest-possible choices, because the ones I liked made me feel like, well, a Horrible Food Ogre for daring to eat them.

The problem with the counts though, I don't think it's just that they exist. I don't even think it's just that they're posted up in big letters for all to see, although I am on the side that would rather have say a small pamphlet listing the information avaliable at the counter, or counts otherwise avaliable by request only. I haven't done all my research, so I don't know how the amount of calories in one food over a similar food might be an indicator of how much fuller it would make you feel. In an ideal world, calorie counts would just be a number to help people gauge how much they'd like to eat based on how hungry they are, or how they're planning their day.

But this isn't an ideal world, and a whole lot of us have grown up with calorie-counting issues. Overwhelmingly, counting calories is about eating as few of them as possible. It's difficult to shake those associations, even as one moves into a more intuitive way of eating. I think for me at least, the problem was a lack of context.

For years and years, I thougth that 500 calories should be about the biggest you get for a meal. That's a fair size. But if you could have a 400 or 300 calorie meal, that was probably better. I have no real idea how I got this in my head, beyond the fact that my mom's Lean Cuisine meals topped out at around 450 or so. I knew that these meals were Healthy, so clearly that was a good number for a meal, i suppose. I got all that praise for eating Lean Cuisines, even though I would always be famished several hours later, after dinner time was over and I wasn't allowed to eat any more substantial food. I remember eating a lot of ramen noodles for dinners when I was young. They only had 300 calories, surely that made it a good meal.

I remember it occuring to me as a child that 500 sounded perfect if you were in a 2000/day calorie plan, like they did teach was necessary at the time. (When I was in school, I was personally getting dieting advice from my doctor, but I don't remember it being emphasized as a school-wide thing the way you hear about today). If you had 500 calories for breakfast, and 500 for lunch, and 500 for dinner, you only hit 1500 which meant you lost weight, right? Or there was an extra 500 left over for a snack. Sounded perfect.

So eventually I got through high school and went off to college, where I was in control of my food. I settled into a pattern well enough. I tend to wake up too late to eat breakfast, and I'm not usually hungry when I wake up. So I have lunch first thing, dinner some five or six hours later, and a third small meal at night. I got used to the dining halls (and after a few weeks of joyously eating chick-fil-a every day, finally decided to get a little less fried chicken in my diet).

And then the counts came out. I discovered that my Quiznos sandwiches I was eating so often tallied up above 500 calories. My tuna salad was a whopping 700! When I first saw that, I refused to buy it for a week. 700 whole calories in one meal? God, what kind of a whale does that make me to eat a 700 calorie sandwich?! That's the most calories on the whole menu!

Oddly enough, Chick-Fil-A was looking more appealing at that time. Their fried sandwiches topped out around 500, and grilled ones around 300. They even had a salad that listed itself as 200 calories before dressing. A few times, I tried to eat that as a meal. And while it was a delicious salad with brocolli and carrot and grilled chicken and a lot of was never enough. Never filling, as soon as I finished eating it, I was hungry again.

I finally told myself to relax, take a breath and think logically. 700 calories times two meals a day plus a smaller something later couldn't add up to being a whale. It couldn't just be about the number of calories in one single meal. It should be about the overall amount of food I was getting each day, and whether it was enough for me. There were several days when I only ate those two meals, and 700 was more than appropriate. There are other days when I've eaten more for lunch, and I go for a smaller sandwich elsewhere in the dining hall instead. Or vice versa, days when I go for a smaller sandwich because I know that I'll be eating a lot of dinner later.

The trouble isn't calories necessarily. It's calories with no context. It's seeing 700 as a giant whale number, and not thinking about how much food you actually need to get through the day.

This is probably tangential, but leads to the same place in the end. Before the winter holidays this year, I started seeing posters in the bathrooms and such put up by the health center about how to avoid overeating at the holidays. One tip they had was that if you were going to a party where there'd be a lot of food, eat first. So you wouldn't be hungry, and wouldn't eat at the party. And this struck me, frankly, as terrible advice.

Why not advise to eat lightly, so that when you have an opportunity to enjoy a lot of tasty food with friends, you can enjoy it? Have a small lunch, because you're aware that there will be a lot of food later in the day. Maybe it was just my imagining how badly that advice would backfire on me, especially earlier in my life when my binge-eating was under less control. To this day I tend to prefer to eat a little of everything - the difference is that if I'm stuffed full at a party now, I'll take just a bite of everything instead of cramming one of everything down. Everything is just more enjoyable if I go into it hungry, because if I go in full it really won't stop me from wanting to try all the tasty things my friends made.

Where this anecdote connects to the post is that I was thinking about the party scenario in terms of calorie context. If I eat a light meal the morning of a big party, call it under 500 calories, and then over the course of a 4-5 hour party I eat another 1500 a few bites at a time, I'm hovering around the 2k/day that's the benchmark for "enough food". I can't think of any reason for anyone to have issue with that pattern of eating a few times a year (substitute thanksgiving or Christmas dinner or 4th-of-July picnics or whatever else for big fun food events). Except, I would have eaten 1500 calories in one party. And that's SO much food. That's WAY too much food. It CAN'T be healthy to eat that much!

When it's all about counts, it becomes really difficult to remember the context. It all boils down to whatever number you get into your head is a meal's worth of calories, and then judging everything you eat by that contextless number. That's the part that causes the trouble. Not the number itself.

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